April 4, 2012

Gender, Sexuality and Psychedelic Spirituality. ~ Joseph Gelfer

Loving Earth

A while back I attended a conference about psychedelic spirituality. During one of the Q&A sessions a woman stood up and asked, “It’s great to see all these beautiful, well-read and articulate men. But I have one question: Where are the women?”

This was a very good question indeed. Looking around, it was difficult to identify any gender imbalance in the audience –– comprised as it was equally of beautiful men and women –– but the speaker of the program told another story. Apart from a few anomalies, the speakers were all men.

The psychedelic community prides itself on progressive, transgressive and even utopian values. But do these values extend to the domain of gender and sexuality? I decided to take it upon myself to find some answers to this question, and looked both to what we already know about this subject, and undertook a survey on how the psychedelic community viewed these issues.

Historical Precedents.

If we look back at comparable communities, a common theme emerges on the issue of gender or, more specifically, women. Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo’s book Daughters of Aquarius: Women of the Sixties Counterculture argues that women in such communities were largely caricatured as “earth mothers” and “love goddesses” by both mainstream culture and a curiously patriarchal culture that existed within their own communities. The women were conscious of at once embodying contemporary and even radical values (such as “free love”), while also embodying a domestic femininity that would have been familiar even to their grandmothers. When it comes specifically to psychedelics, Lemke-Santangelo writes, “countercultural literature is virtually silent on the subject of women’s drug experiences.”

If we think of psychedelic spirituality as a form of alternative spirituality, a similar pattern emerges. Susan Palmer’s book Moon Sisters, Krishna Mothers, Rajneesh Lovers: Women’s Roles in New Religions argues that while new religions often seek to overturn many values of mainstream society, when it comes to gender they often perpetuate the patriarchal norm.

And the story continues within psychedelic literature itself. Take, for example, Cynthia Palmer and Michael Horowitz’s book Sisters of the Extreme: Women Writing on the Drug Experience, which includes drug narratives from a variety of female authors. The question, of course, is would you find a book called Brothers of the Extreme: Men Writing on the Drug Experience? Probably not, as men’s writing comprises the vast majority of all the other publishing on psychedelics. It was this concern that led to initiatives such as the Women’s Visionary Congress, which champions women’s voices in the psychedelic community.

Grassroots Option.

This is all well and good, but what does the psychedelic community itself think about this issue? I undertook an anonymous online survey to find out, promoted within the community by a new organization, Psychedelic Research in Science & Medicine. An extended account of this survey is currently under review in an academic journal. 148 people completed the survey: 97 were men.

Various themes emerged from the survey. Most people (63 percent) did not believe gender to be a significant part of a person’s psychedelic experience, which was largely thought to transcend earthly matters such as being a man or a woman. A minority of people felt that our social experiences and perhaps even our neurological hardwiring made men and women’s experience unique.

When asked if they felt there was equality within the community, 61 percent of people answered positively. Most stated that the community was more welcoming to diversity than mainstream society. However, a vocal minority felt the community was “a bit of a boy’s club” and women were “often sidelined as just ‘the girlfriends.’” A difference emerges here between the opinions of men and women, inasmuch as women were more likely to identify inequality.

These and other questions provide interesting conclusions. In short, the community mostly thinks there are no problems surrounding gender. But a significant minority (especially among women), were very vocal about their dissatisfaction, claiming that women are marginalized there in exactly the same way as mainstream society, both in terms of their statistical representation in leading roles, and the way they are generally treated.

The Sexuality Factor.

One aspect surfaced by the survey that really surprised me was about sexual orientation. In mainstream society we can expect to find around 90 percent of people identifying as straight. In this psychedelic community, only 76 percent of people ticked the straight box. Further still, from the remaining respondents, most identified as bi-sexual, not gay. That’s really quite extraordinary, and supports the community’s claim to being progressive and inclusive.

But here’s the tricky bit. My feeling is that a slippage is occurring between sexuality and gender. Certainly, the community is queer-friendly: nearly all the opinions voiced in the survey confirm this. However, it may be this commonly-held assumption about queer politics is being incorrectly applied to gender politics. In other words, you cannot assume that because a community is queer-friendly, it is also women-friendly: while often lumped together as being oppressed under patriarchy, queer people and straight women have very different experiences.

Looking Forward.

So when it comes to straight gender politics there are significant levels of dissatisfaction among women (and some men) typified by a respondent who claimed, “Many women’s contributions to the field are ignored entirely, attributed to men or minimized.” Clearly, those inclusive, progressive and transgressive values do not fully extend into the domain of gender. And this is a question that many spiritually-inclined communities could do well to consider, whether it be yoga, integral spirituality or Burning Man.

However, somewhat paradoxically, because the leadership of the community is almost exclusively male, it was mostly men who promoted the survey and discussion within the community, and they did so with enthusiasm. It is a community in transition, caught in some elusive territory between what it was and what it aspires to be.


Editor: Lindsay Friedman


Joseph Gelfer is author of Numen, Old Men: Contemporary Masculine Spiritualities and the Problem of Patriarchy and The Masculinity Conspiracy. He is editor of Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality. His anthology, 2012: Decoding the Countercultural Apocalypse has been published just in time for the end days. More information at www.gelfer.net

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